Some refer to this section of downtown as Eastchester. But Don Martin likes to call it the Funk Zone.
After leaving his old location on 19th Street last year, a space Martin's Metro Galleries thrived at for 11 years, his newly restored and reimagined space five blocks east of Chester Avenue is just days away from re-opening.
The new location at 901 18th St. is in what might be described as a humming hive of downtown commercial space. The two- or three-block area is now seeing an extraordinary resurgence of energy, investment and innovation.
"After 11 years at the old location, they had raised the rent from $9,000-plus to $10,000," Martin said of his former landlords.
When he first moved in, he leased the space for about $2,000 a month, and was happy to cover rent increases over the years as the value of the downtown area's property steadily increased.
But this final rent hike was enough to make him start thinking hard — about two options: packing it up and leaving for the coast or finding a new location downtown and opening Metro for the third time.
"I was having coffee across the street (at Cafe Smitten) just trying to decide what to do," he recalled. "Then I saw the sign here."
And the wheels started turning.
He went to friends for advice. He went to nearby businesses to ask for their perspective.
American General Media's Rogers Brandon, who had hired Martin to redesign the interior of his studio offices, was one of those friends and advisers.
"Don is a very ambitious and entrepreneurial art dealer and event coordinator," Brandon said. "His 19th Street gallery was always so lovely.
"I've seen his new location and it's equally interesting in a renovative way ... I think it's another piece of the puzzle for Eastchester."
The building, built in 1947, was originally opened as Ed Pfalzag Automotive.
"When I walked in, it was divided up into rooms," Martin said. "I began tearing stuff out of the ceiling."
And much more. Martin designed the remodel himself, and did most of the physical work it took to transform the building. It's taken nearly 10 months.
"After 12 years in the business, I saw this as an opportunity to re-invent. For me, it was like a challenge," Martin said.
He decided the space should retain some of its industrial identity: the polished concrete floors, the steel beams, the exposed heating-cooling system. But he also wanted to give a nod to the mid-century decor of that era.
"I wanted it to look like a warehouse with some Hollywood glam," he said, grinning. And the Sputnik and starburst lights help do exactly that.
Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, whose district includes downtown, said Eastchester should benefit from Martin's move.
"I'm excited to see the new Metro Galleries open in Eastchester. Don has been a leader in downtown revitalization for years," Gonzales said. "The original Metro Galleries quickly became an anchor for the arts district, and I'm certain his new gallery will be a destination as well.
"I think the progress on 18th street, and throughout downtown, is proof that more and more people want to live, work, eat, worship and just be downtown. Things will only continue to get better."
Martin says he feels that energy. So does Brandon. They mentioned Cafe Smitten; the 17th Place Townhomes; the newly opened dot x ott and Angry Barnyard Barbecue; the Tlo Wines tasting room and so many of the already established businesses like the Chris Vanderlei Gallery, which specializes in Persian rugs, art and antiques; Fashionista, a women's clothing boutique, and many others.
Several paintings by Faith Taylor, the first artist to be featured in the new space, are already up on the walls. One of the paintings, which had previously been sold, was returned by the purchaser because it was too large for the room he had.
When Martin hung it on the wall for the new exhibit, he felt a kind of shift in his own reality.
"Once this painting was up, within two or three days, the energy seemed to change here," Martin said.
He began booking private events much earlier than he had anticipated. And now has nearly every weekend booked through September.
After months of transition — and grueling work — Martin is seeing both an ending and a new beginning.
"The challenge I faced over the past year was similar to the challenge of starting this journey almost 12 years ago," he said. "There are always naysayers, and when I began, there were a few.
"One was actually a close friend at the time who placed a wager with my friend Mitch Olsen. She bet him 20 bucks I’d be out business within a year. I won’t name her but I’d say she owes Mitch a couple thousand bucks, with interest."
The challenge Martin overcame all those years ago helped him meet and beat the more recent challenge of moving and reinventing the Metro. Now that the opening is on the horizon, he's filled with anticipation and hope.
"We'll launch First Friday down here in June," he said.
It'll continue at the original location as well. But he thinks the Eastchester location may bring a new surge of energy to the popular monthly event.
Meanwhile, a new business has finally moved into the old location on 19th Street — Asparagus Cafe, a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah lounge.
Martin wishes them well.